You know where you are with pretty much anything Boris Johnson does – it’s going to be fun, it’s going to make you chuckle, but you might not come away feeling you have learned a great deal.
Johnson embraces this bumbling, amateurish approach in an introduction that seems designed to undercut any claims to being an authority on his subject.
“I am not a professional historian…and as a student of Churchill, I sit at the feet of Martin Gilbert, Andrew Roberts, Max Hastings, Richard Toye and many others,” our author confesses. As that list implies, Churchillology is a crowded field of study, added to which Johnson has done only a limited amount of original research, so there is not much sense of new light being shone on areas of Churchill’s career that had previously been unmined.
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This breezy approach might be fine when writing a “chicken feed” 800-worder in the Daily Telegraph, but works less well over several hundred pages, especially when trying to cover 60-odd years of British history.
Johnson’s basic thesis is that Churchill’s unique personality saved not just Britain but the world from the scourge of fascism. It’s certainly an arguable case, but it is not as though he is swimming against the great tide of public opinion by saying Churchill did great things against the Nazis. It’s also curious that he claims to be “nervous of counterfactual history” before explaining what the world would probably look like today if Churchill had not been around to save us.
So, those looking for a dispassionate appraisal of Churchill’s achievements should search elsewhere. Johnson is in complete awe of his subject and is not afraid to let us know it. He tells us that as a child it was common knowledge that there was something “holy and magical” about Churchill, and Johnson certainly is not about to let any of the more inconvenient aspects of his legacy distract from this.
He does not ignore Churchill’s faults and failures, but is prone to gloss over and in some cases excuse what were colossal misjudgements. We hear more about Churchill’s nanny, for instance, than about the decision to firebomb Dresden. Nor does Johnson let niggling issues such as Churchill’s attitude towards the “foul” Indians or his enthusiasm for gassing enemy troops get in the way of the big picture stuff. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that at times Boris is playing fast and loose with things to suit a case to which he is deeply committed – a bit like a minister defending his pet project despite all available evidence to the contrary.
Some of his points regarding Churchill’s genius are debatable – at times Johnson seems to equate the sheer volume of Churchill’s output with proof of his brilliance. The fact that he outpublished Dickens and Shakespeare is certainly impressive in terms of industry, but not necessarily an indicator of quality. That said, he does a nice line in deconstructing the linguistic devices that made Churchill such a compelling speaker. Interestingly, Churchill emerges as far from a natural public speaker; rather, he is a reciter of carefully crafted words.
As with much of what he writes, one is acutely aware throughout of the author’s presence – at one point Johnson even places himself in the action, following in his hero’s footsteps by driving a 4x4 around a former WWI battlefield in Belgium. There is also the trademark littering of the text with classical allusions, as though we needed further reminding of which politician read Greats at Oxford.
Along with his slightly intrusive writing style, there is a nagging suspicion that Boris is using his characterisation of Churchill to burnish his own political brand. When we read of Churchill as a “showman” and “an extrovert” who wrote with a “rollicking readability”, one detects a wink and a nod to the author’s own qualities. At one point he even manages to shoehorn his pet topic – cycling in London – into a discussion of aviation safety in the early 20th century. This, along with the hero worship that runs through every page of The Churchill Factor, adds to the sense that our narrator is serving two masters – Churchill’s reputation and his own.
For all these gripes about the text, it is certainly a bouncy, spirited read, with some worthwhile insights into the experiences that formed Churchill’s character. Those in search of unadulterated Boris will find what they are looking for; those looking for a serious piece of history should probably wait for William Hague’s next book.